Passing the Electrify Africa Act: When politics, policy and activism meet
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Passing the Electrify Africa Act: When politics, policy and activism meet

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Last month, President Obama signed the Electrify Africa Act into law. It was the final step in a long process that, for me, began more than five years ago.

I first heard the phrase “energy poverty” at a 2011 dinner in New York with Kristine Pearson and Rory Stear, two friends of mine from South Africa. Kristine and Rory had been involved in the successful movement to distribute wind-up radios throughout Africa, but it was when Kristine started talking about the significance of the lack of access to power on the continent that I became fascinated.

Jane Anika, right, from Green Energy Africa, a local NGO, shows two Maasai girls how to use a solar lamp, in the village of Koora, Kenya, on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Jane Anika, right, from Green Energy Africa, a local NGO, shows two Maasai girls how to use a solar lamp, in the village of Koora, Kenya, on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill)

I knew something about the importance of power – when I was living in East Asia, I’d become familiar with the way in which electricity had transformed lives and economic progress for hundreds of millions. And in 2004 I’d commissioned a piece for TIME on one of the little-known consequences of energy poverty – the awful impact on health from the indoor pollution that comes from cooking on stoves fueled by wood or dung. So when I arrived at ONE that summer, power was one of the things on my mind.

At ONE, I discovered that our new Global Policy Director, Ben Leo, was as intrigued with the issue as I was. He and Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development in Washington – an old friend and colleague of mine – had started to work out what would be needed to really tackle the subject. I started giving talks on the topic – it was actually the subject of my first big speech for ONE, at the University of Colorado – which I gave partly in the dark to dramatize the impact that a lack of power had on peoples’ lives. So one way or another, we were beginning to amass a collection of people talking about how access to electricity could fight poverty. But there wasn’t yet any mechanism or anything tangible in place to help bring about change.

A Maasai man holds up a newly obtained solar lamp which can be used to keep predators away from the herds, in the village of Koora, Kenya, on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill)

A Maasai man holds up a newly obtained solar lamp which can be used to keep predators away from the herds, in the village of Koora, Kenya, on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill)

But change was needed. Because the numbers were startling: Some 589 million people in sub-Saharan Africa—68% of the population—do not have access to electricity or other modern energy services and roughly 30 African countries face endemic power shortages. Then we looked at what happens when countries can provide more access to electricity – and the results were just as extraordinary. Students in Sudan, for example, were able to improve their pass rates from 57% to 97% after just one year with electric lights.

We talked with partners, friends, and policy experts; we wrote opinion pieces (I placed one in The Economist’s annual look ahead to the following year for 2014). And we decided that we needed to introduce a bill in the U.S. Congress that could help private and public partners invest in Africa’s energy future.

This bill, which started as Energize Africa and then became Electrify Africa, had a lot of help along the way. We had an open letter from African and NGO leaders supporting more than two dozen African nations that committed to providing universal energy access by 2030. NGOs from Tanzania and Nigeria wrote open letters supporting the initiative. ONE’s Policy division wrote reports, and our Government Affairs team drafted legislation and talked with key members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to get this passed. Our leaders spoke with influencers high and low about Electrify Africa… and slowly the bill was whipped into shape and became a real thing.

And that’s where our ONE members came in. They generated literally hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, letters, calls, tweets, and Congressional office meetings—all written, submitted and performed by ONE members across the U.S. who believed in the bill.

These ONE volunteers delivered a petition to Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina’s 1st District.

These ONE volunteers delivered a petition to Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina’s 1st District.

When I traveled around the country meeting members, I could guarantee: They would always come up to me and talk about Electrify Africa. They wanted to know more about the process and what they could do to help. It was inspiring to speak with them and realize that we had a whole army of engaged citizens ready to push Congress to pass the bill.

And pass it we did! It’s not every day that a nonprofit organization can help write a bill and get it passed through Congress with bipartisan support. Now the president has signed it into law, the hard work begins on implementing it – on providing millions of people with access to modern energy, which in turn will energize progress in all areas of human development and self-sufficiency.

And meanwhile, energy poverty has gone mainstream as a key element in development. The need for more energy played a central part of the annual letter by Bill and Melinda Gates this year and my old friends at The Economist have just published a long and important article on the topic.

This is what happens when a good idea meets smart people. Whether it is writing policy, or pushing Congress for action, or the many other ways in which we can all make a difference, ONE’s work on energy shows activism at its best. Our work doesn’t always work out that way, but when it does we should both cheer and give thanks.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of ONE members and our staff who worked for nearly five years to pull off this real victory.

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